The Meter Maids, Bikes & Cars of L.A.
I delve into the "parking enforcement is ACAB" debate in Los Angeles.
Long story short: an L.A. City Council candidate (who I really like, Dulce Vasquez) wrote on twitter how she’d ticket vehicles parked in the bike lane. This blew up among many L.A. left-wingers on Twitter who argued that parking enforcement was bad because it hurt the poor and gig workers.
You may be interested to know this isn’t the first time I’ve encountered this discussion. I work with a coalition of civil rights and transportation groups on de-policing traffic enforcement, both locally and in the California state legislature and this specific issue has arisen several times.
We in the de-policing traffic enforcement coalition all agree that parking enforcement officers are ideal examples of enforcing laws without guns or arresting powers, and that similarly equipped officers for traffic could work much the same way. What we don’t agree on is the harm caused by the parking enforcement division. There are many who want to investigate if they’ve been complicit in any biased ticketing.
In case you didn’t know, meter maids or their more politically correct term of parking enforcement officers are not police officers. Yes, even if they wear ‘police’ on their clothes. Those fake police badges and fake police belts without pistols, batons and cuffs are just props so that an irate motorist thinks twice before disobeying them. Parking officers cannot arrest you and are unarmed. Sometimes they’re in the police department; sometimes they’re in finance or transportation. These are generally budgetary decisions and violence deterrence more than anything else. They don’t organize with the police officers union but instead with public worker unions.
Parking enforcement officers are usually Black or Latina, usually middle-aged women and usually drive around in three-wheeled scooters. They’re also often crosswalk guards or traffic directors during an outage. As I said to LA Pod: when I see a cop I fear for my safety; when I see a meter maid I fear if I parked in the red. I don’t consider them part of carceral policing.
But these facts don’t mean parking enforcement is without bias or issue. There are three issues that some Angelenos brought up on Twitter regarding Vasquez’s call to ticket cars in the bike lane, that: (1) parking enforcement has assisted in homeless sweeps; (2) that gig economy workers are harmed by parking enforcement; and that (3) parking fees hurt the poor.
These are good points worth discussing, so let’s start with the first. Parking officers have assisted in evicting homeless people living in cars and they are called in to help direct traffic during protests. Some would argue this therefore makes them complicit in carceral policing but its not unique to parking officers.
Every public worker is ordered by the police, electeds or bureaucrats to assist police departments. It is sanitation workers trashing homeless people’s belongings; it is street management workers putting down concrete barricades during protests; it is bus drivers chauffeuring riot police; it is parks and recreation workers fencing up places and removing benches where the homeless congregate; and it is parking enforcement officers that tow homeless people’s cars away.
Going to war with the entire public works for doing what their bosses and elected politicians order them to do misses the source of harm. Their compulsory participation in policing — much of it unwilling — is an opportunity for union organizing and pressuring politicians. But what about the gig workers? The DoorDash and Uber Eats drivers that get ticketed when they make deliveries? Many Angelenos asked where they’re supposed to park.
Gig workers are not highly paid and a parking ticket can obliterate a delivery driver’s earnings that day. If you had to quickly park your car in traffic, sprint out to deliver food and come out only to find a $65 ticket for blocking a bike lane, or $250 for a bus lane, you’ll be shouting “ACAB” to the meter maids, too. That’s a lot of money for a gig worker who receives infrequent tips and is imposing major wear on their cars that they have to pay for.
But the whole thing feels like Late Stage Capitalism™ as the saying goes and misses the forest for the trees. We let several for-profit companies flood the already congested streets with unnecessary vehicular trips that cannibalize public infrastructure. They don’t have to pay a cent for any traffic violations or street wear their delivery vehicles cause because all their workers aren’t classified as employees. So now the public sector is stuck trying to mitigate the impacts of an industry that bought its way to being unregulated at the expense of everyone in traffic and our public infrastructure.
It’s hard to even explain these externalities because the cost of ordering delivery, driving and parking is so artificially low for (American) consumers that trying to make these companies like UberEats or DoorDash pay for their impacts, or charge for parking, seems like a war on the working class. You can thank public subsidies for low parking and fossil fuel costs and investors for largely unprofitable gig companies.
But the real issue here is that people might not be so opposed to traffic and parking tickets if that money was going to actually make alternatives to driving safer and better. The issue famously demonstrated by the Ferguson Police Department is that cities depend on traffic and parking violations to pump money into their general fund. This is a huge slap in the face to the goals of keeping streets safe and worse yet, provides a fairly sinister incentive.
If a city depends on a certain amount of traffic and parking fines to prop up its budget then that city has all the incentive not to fix infrastructure like unprotected bike lanes, poorly marked bus stops, no crosswalks and excessive car lanes that caused the violations to begin with. I would be happy to pay a parking ticket if I knew it was going to a bus shelter or bike parking and yet it almost never does. It’s as if they have an incentive to keep traffic fatalities and immobility up to justify tickets.
I’m reminded of an incident with my mother a couple of years ago at a BART station. When she pulled up in her car to pick me up while I waited outside she drove into the bus loading zone. With exception to a tiny “do not enter” sign that’s hard to see until after you turned into the zone, she committed a traffic violation which anyone would’ve done since the entrance is within several feet of an indistinguishable parking lot entrance.
On cue a police officer who sits in a hiding spot to catch this exact violation pulls up as I enter the car to give us a traffic ticket. My mother ran through the traffic stop protocol that must be followed if you’re Black and don’t want to be shot. I would’ve much preferred a meter attendant to hand us that ticket or better yet, a clear sign and physical barriers that discouraged cars from entering rather than have a cop run our plates with a pistol at his side.
But the poor signage and prowling officer just waiting to pounce almost made it seem like it was designed to create a traffic violation. This is why I understand Vasquez’s tweet but don’t think ticketing is even a primary solution. I don’t want to depend on the presence of a civil servant to keep cars out of the bike lane. I just want safe infrastructure to keep cars out. And I’m sure that not only does Vasquez want that but, whether they realize it or not, motorists do too. Drivers don’t want to be hitting cyclists or parking over other people’s space and dealing with a parking ticket.
Several Angelenos told me that my perspective isn’t wholly fair because I don’t know what its like to live in a city without dependable transit. (Uh, the Bay Area’s not that great). But they’re right. I’ve never had to trade groceries for paying a parking ticket. I’ve never forfeited wages because my car got towed. I’ve never become immobile because I got my license suspended.
That is something many of the working poor have to deal with in Los Angeles and the nation. But I’ve also seen the poor get delayed because a car blocked a train. I’ve seen the poor soaking at a bus stop because their route was delayed by car traffic. I’ve seen the poor in wheelchairs wait for a car parked in the bus stop to leave so they can use a bus ramp. It is the poor and homeless, often on bikes, that get hit and killed by vehicular traffic.
You can be mad at Vasquez for resorting to ticketing but it seems like that anger comes from people who themselves don’t ride a bike. A lot of normal drivers who don’t bike have no idea how ordinary people from grandma, to the 17 year old permit driver, to the middle aged soccer mom can turn violent if a person on a bike is near them while they drive.
When you see cyclists in L.A. like this one who nearly died just 2 weeks ago riding alongside cars because what should’ve been a bike lane was instead prioritized for parking, then you’ll understand why having cars park in bike lanes is a big deal. As big of a deal as driving on the sidewalk or parking your car in the middle of the freeway.
There’s a cultural perception that cyclists are all just skinny white tech bros. But it merely appears that way because only young, twenty-somethings with flexible, high paid jobs are content with putting their lives on the line to bike in traffic. Only they are content with shouting back at motorists who harass them, and only they can afford to be delayed by cars parked in the bike lane.
Your average brown or Black, working class Angeleno — many of whom are cyclists but aren’t recording their daily near misses for Twitter — do not have that flexibility. Most Angelenos have to drive, but it because those cars are parked in the bike lane that they have to, not in spite of them. And until most people are comfortable saying: “I’m fine with my kid biking by themselves”, the car will always be king in LA and the nation.
So what are some non-punitive solutions to the parking problems American cities face:
Fine people for parking violations based on income and not flat fees.
Decriminalize using your car as a home.
Protect people who use bikes with real infrastructure, not paint and plastic. And if your city doesn’t do it then get some planter boxes and cones and do it yourself.
Impose TNC taxes on gig corporations to mitigate their impact on public infrastructure.
Here’s the best part: the more people you get out of their cars and onto transit and bikes with safe, protected infrastructure, the more parking space can be prioritized for people who actually need to drive like delivery workers and those without a house.